It’s mid-autumn. After weeks of drought the Wensum at Lyng is low and clear and desperately in need of rain. With every gust of wind, leaves fall from the bankside trees into the river. Some carpet the surface; others drift in mid-water; yet more smother the bottom. Ironically, the rain has chosen this very morning to make its return. Prospects for fishing of any kind, let alone roaching, don’t look good.
The downpour doesn’t appear to be dampening Barry Bailey’s enthusiasm, though, and he hardly seems to notice the water running down his neck as he leads the way through the trees to the river.
Then came the dredgers and the abstractors, and the Wensum went the way of so many other lowland English rivers. Its roach were unable to breed successfully and within only a few years they died off, leaving just the odd old, outsized fish.
For once, however, local anglers cared enough to act. No wonder Barry is so keen to start fishing, despite the adverse weather and water conditions: he’s determined to catch some young roach, to prove that NACA is succeeding in helping the species to breed successfully again, and so show anglers in other parts of the country just what can be done.
Barry starts in the old millpool above the weir. He chooses a pitch in the reeds at the head of the pool, a swim from which he can explore both the main flow and the slower water at the sides and tail. Even in the gloom and rain, it’s an idyllic spot. Enclosed by trees, with the dominant sound the tumble of water through the sluice, you couldn’t be farther away from it all.
Barry mashes up some bread, squeezes out a few small balls and lobs them gently into the main flow. They break up as they sink, dispersing an enticing trail. By the time he has tackled up they should have whetted the appetites of any resident roach. Float Barry sets up an ll2ft Avon rod and a fixed-spool reel loaded with 254lb line.
His float is a bulbous, buoyant, clear hoh low-plastic 2SSG loafer’. He attaches it bottom-end only and shots it with a single SSG 30cm from the hook — this keeps the breadflake hookbait down in the flow. Undershotting the float allows Barry to long-trot it and still see it clearly. It also means he can trundle the hookbait along the bottom, or check the float’s passage to make the hookbait rise, without the float dragging under.
Barry’s hook is a forged size 12 tied direct to the main line. He flattens the barb so that it does less damage to the fish while retaining a secure hook-hold. Leger Barry sets up an lift quivertip rod and a fixed-spool reel loaded with 3lb line. He ties a forged size 10 hook, again with a flattened barb, direct to the main line. A swan-shot link slides above a leger stop, which he positions 30-45cm from the hook according to how the fish are biting.
Barry introduces some more mash, picks up his float rod and baits the hook with a pinch of flake. He flicks the float out into the main flow and lets it run down until it reaches the tail of the pool, where the bottom shallows up to form a natural food trap. He checks the float’s progress slightly, so that the flake flutters enticingly into the trap. The float reaches the end of the pool. Nothing. Barry strikes the flake off the hook and winds in, sets the float to fish a little bit deeper, rebaits and recasts.
Again, Barry checks the float at the tail of the pool, inching it down, almost willing the bait into a fish’s mouth. This time, just before reaching the end of the pool, the float bobs once, then twice, then slowly but surely sinks out of sight. A smart, sweeping strike sets the hook and the as-yet-unseen fish heads determinedly up the pool towards the sluice.
Barry soon gets it under control, however, and steers it into the side. It’s a small chub, not one of the hoped-for roach, but a good fish all the same. He quickly but carefully unhooks it and slips it back.
The rain is unrelenting, but Barry’s concentration never wavers. He lets his float explore the slower water on the far side of the pool, and varies the depth setting in an effort to draw a response. Every now and then he throws in a little ball of mash. Despite the troublesome leaves constantly fouling the line and catching on the hook, several more small chub are fooled, plus a dace of almost alb . But no roach as yet.
Barry tries the leger, wondering if that will do the trick. Straight away the tip starts twitching and trembling as a fish noses the bait. Two sharp pulls follow and he strikes into a fish — another chub.
Back to the float, and a roach is on! It only weighs a few ounces, but it’s a young, perfectly formed fish and nothing could have pleased Barry more. Grinning broadly, he unhooks and returns it with loving care.
Barry tries the leger once more. After a long wait he strikes the wariest of bites and feels the characteristic thump, thump, glide of a good roach. Aflash of silver shows in the clear water and a brilliant red dorsal fin breaks surface – a jewel in the Wensum. At around 1lb it’s a splendid specimen and, most encouraging of all, a young fish in mint condition.
Bites become cagey in the millpool and Barry thinks it’s time for a move downstream. He stops here and there, trying different lies, and picks up a 24lb chub from a far bank glide, but the main river is really too low and clear for roach. With the rain still falling, the lure of the pub is too strong to resist.
It did in fact stop raining in the afternoon, and Barry gave it another go in the millpool and on the main river. No more roach were forthcoming, but the morning’s success was enough to show that, touch wood, Wensum roach are on their way back.